What relevance does Buddhism and non-duality have to a modern psychotherapy?

by Jan 22, 2023Karuna0 comments

Clients normally come into therapy because things are not how they would like them to be, in short, they are suffering. The Buddha`s initial teaching at Varanassi was on the four noble truths, where he talked about dukkha, which has often been translated as suffering, stuckness or identification. His prior awakening or enlightenment had opened an understanding that went right to the core of our suffering and from here he taught the nature of suffering, its causes, the possibility of its ending and a path towards that ending. What the Buddha points to is how our everyday sense of self is the very cause of our feeling separate, isolated and dissatisfied. This sense of self or identity, requires a great deal of effort to maintain and usually provides a short-lived and not fully satisfying happiness, yet we are mostly unconsciously driven by the inner narrator despite our continued suffering. 

Simply put, the term non-duality refers to a lack of twoness. The Buddha`s teachings point through and beyond the deeply conditioned, everyday sense of self and speak from an awakened mind that rests in non-dual understanding. In this experience of non-separateness, the qualities of joy, happiness, beauty and unconditional love, are seen to be inherent aspects that are always available and not something we need to achieve. Life then, can be enjoyed for what it is rather than what we need from it. We are able to enjoy our loved ones rather than need them to make us happy or whole. However, from the conditioned sense of self, often referred to as our ego, non-separateness may seem threatening and evoke deep existential fear. Here for example, setting a loved one free from our needs may feel too risky and we may fear that they will leave us.

Western psychodynamics inform us, that a psychological self emerges over the first 3 to 5 years and is built upon the instinctual survival strategies that we have as infants. From birth, we are not purely passive receptacles but know how to suckle, attract attention and contact in order to meet our needs. Depending on how these instinctual drives are met by our caregivers, a psychological self takes shape and develops into a sense of self in relation to a world out there. When we defend a particular idea or view, the psychological self, energised by the patterned associations with early instinctual drives gives both a force and direction to our sense of self in the world. Our identity and the world we perceive from this self, become a closed loop and self-fulfilling prophecy.

In opening up to non-dual teachings, we may meet protest and resistance from our conditioned mind. Thoughts may arise such as, “if I let go of my separate identity, I might lose myself and then there will be chaos.” “Someone else will take control of my mind if I don’t hold on to what I think.” At the relative level these are valid concerns. A blank mind can be dangerous, for example, when we are driving a car and of course if we let another person control us, this is often unhealthy and can lead to abuses. In this non-dual space or awareness, we are not in a blank state, but are in contact with a deep knowing and wisdom where we are able to see the attempted manipulations of others with greater clarity. These non-dual teachings point us back inward and down towards a deeper truth of ourself and the world we live in, which is ever present, yet not charged with the energy of these defended patterns. Often in daily life, this calm inner knowing is drowned out in the moment by the sheer force of our defended self. 

Maybe it is due to the survival needs of the body that these patterns are felt to be the core of ourself and are so convincing when they emerge. This is why we are asked to enquire into our experience rather than simply do the opposite of what our conditioned mind is telling us. These patterns arose out of early conditions and due to their associations with survival, have become stuck patterns within the mind-body. It is not so much that they are wrong per se, it is more that they are not responsive to changing conditions. An analogy might be, that if we have become accustomed to running out of the house when a smoke detector has gone off, the action does keep us safe, yet may often be unduly disruptive and unnecessary. What we are invited to do here is to check first whether we have burnt the toast, or if there is actually an inferno that warrants our hasty exit. It would be unwise to just ignore the detector, or take out the battery because the noise was disturbing our peace. By enquiring mindfully, we become increasingly able to discern reaction from wise action and over time come to see that this wisdom arises out of an open spacious experience which we understand as non-dual. This non-dual awareness, unlike our conditioned self cannot be grasped onto, and it is this aspect, which often sends the conditioned mind into a spin. 

Much of our initial discomfort in opening to non-dual teachings, whether they are Buddhist or from other wisdom traditions, is that we have become identified with and habituated in this limited aspect of mind. Any threat to its sovereignty is then met with resistance from within and may be experienced as a fear of losing control. There are also particular protests, which can take on many forms dependent upon our own psychological conditioning. The coupling of Buddhist psychology and western psychodynamics, offers a framework to enquire into the particular traumas that appears to obscure the non-dual, awakened mind. By working with both understandings, it can be seen that as we resolve historical traumas, we are at the same time, opening up to the spacious qualities of presence or being, which in a reciprocal way might be seen to enable us to see deeper patterns or obscurations. This process was referred to by the mystic and poet Rumi, when he spoke of descending down and down, into ever-widening circles of being. 

As we deepen in this way there is a paradoxical experience where, as we soften our conditioned sense of identity, we actually feel more fully ourself. The seeing through of our defences often means coming to terms with and accepting parts of ourself that we have strategised to avoid throughout our lives. Maura Sills refers to this process, when she describes welcoming the orphans of our consciousness. In our identity we have suppressed these parts of our self into what is often termed the shadow. These patterns of judgement and suppression are mostly unconscious and come to the surface with depth psychotherapy. 

To give an example, a fairly common experience that arises in therapy is that of being able to say “no,” in a clear yet undefended way. If as children our “no” was not respected, we will have learnt to strategise to manage our experience. These strategies are the best way we could adapt and often will take on a theme that runs through our ancestral line. 

My own particular shaping was one where I felt unable to voice my “no” unless I became angry, otherwise I would put up with the demands, get on with it, yet feel burdened and resentful afterwards. The anger that enabled me to say no, was often out of proportion to the event and subsequently left a feeling of guilt. Caught between these two difficult possibilities didn’t allow much space or openness. Through much enquiry with my therapist, it emerged that there was a deep fear of annihilation that had been unconsciously driving my strategies. As I became more able to be with this process from awareness rather than being identified in the pattern, I experienced a gradual softening of the tendency and eventually felt a shift or release. On reflection, it seemed that by becoming aware of the very early fear that had been stuck in my nervous system, a deeper wisdom emerged that meant I could find more skilful ways to assert clear boundaries, that were appropriate to the conditions of the moment. The sense of freedom from this particular defensive pattern, left me feeling more fully myself and not contracted into this restrictive and ultimately unsatisfying character strategy. When in the grip of the pattern and unconscious fear I could not see any other way to respond, yet now there seemed to be access to a sense of spontaneity and choice.

Core Process Psychotherapy offers a path towards this deeper understanding and wisdom, that is not dependent on belief or faith, but take us towards a non-dual understanding which is at the heart of our existence and is inclusive of, rather than in opposition to the functional, conditioned aspect of our mind. The paradox here is that as we soften and are less identified with our conditioned sense of self, there is a greater capacity for flow and we become more able to act responsibly and compassionately with ourselves, in our relational world with others and the physical world that we inhabit. 

In Core Process Psychotherapy we are not taught strategies aimed at fixing our clients, but encouraged to explore our own conditioning, find our own deeper wisdom and truth, such that we can guide our clients to do the same. As we move deeper in our own process, into ever widening circles of being, we are resting more and more into this non-dual field of awareness, which is also known as the holding field. The Buddha`s teachings point to this non-dual understanding which is at the heart of our full human beingness, is ever-present and that we can, through a deep enquiry come to experience as a sense of home and connection. By embracing these teachings and complimenting them with a developmentally focused, psychodynamic understanding of the defended self, Core Process Psychotherapy offers a psychologically informed and compassionate perspective for psychotherapy.

Andy Gibb
Author Andy Gibb

Andy has been teaching at the Karuna Institute since 2016. He has explored Sufi and Buddhist spiritual teachings and the pointings from Advaita Vedanta. Andy particularly enjoys enquiring into the healing relationship between the nondual aspects of these traditions and psychotherapy. He lives and practices psychotherapy in Devon.


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